How Did We Get Here? part 1

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Release Date: 
Thursday, October 4, 2018

We started our Monday morning with the question “How did we get here?” How did we get to incarcerating the most people at the highest rate in the world? How did we get to the place where 700,000 people leave our jails and prisons every year, many without support? How did we get to the place where we incarcerate black people at five times the rate we incarcerate white people?

As part of The Marshall Project’s (TMP) ongoing work to change the narrative around criminal justice, TMP hosted a panel, What's The Story? Criminal Justice and Narrative Change, sponsored by Google and the Public Welfare Fund. Sherrilyn Ifill, president, and director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Weldon Angelos, community organizer and artist, debated how we got to the reality of our unjust justice system.

While everyone on the panel agreed that our criminal justice system is unfair, their reasoning for why and how it became unfair differed. Ifill connected the black codes and convict leasing after the Civil War to the criminalization of normal behavior and exploitation of prison labor continuing today. She repeatedly emphasized how racism is the only explanation for the seemingly illogical criminal justice system. Ifill reminded us that we decide who is a criminal and that how we decide what constitutes crime is entrenched in racism and narratives about black and brown people. Her narrative was clear, understandable, and purposeful.

Norquist interpreted this same question, how we got here, differently.  He focused on how we, and the criminal justice system, have gotten better. He did not point to specific numbers or stories of how the criminal justice system has improved in the past twenty years but he did speak about the deregulation of drugs as a success. Norquist clearly stated he was speaking from a Republican viewpoint and focused his perception of the partisan politics around criminal justice reform. He jumped from point to point without a clear purpose in speaking. Angelos served 12 years in prison for selling $350 worth of marijuana and was sentenced to 55 years because of mandatory minimum laws. Because the punishment was so severe, his case garnered national attention and through activism, his sentence was commuted. He told his story and shared his passion for reducing mandatory minimums and improving conditions in prison because of how the criminal justice system had shaped his life. id="docs-internal-guid-24271fe5-7fff-02b1-1de9-53b18e3be66a">During the moderated panel Ifill and Norquist went back and forth, with Ifill bringing the conversation back to the human cost of incarceration, the human cost of reform, and the racism embedded in the system and Norquist throwing out (what seemed to me) unconnected stories. At one point, he compared being searched by security at a music festival, Burning Man, to the stop and frisk policies of the NYPD. Throughtout the event, his remarks seemed  flustered, but Ifill remained strong on her narrative.

As I watched the debate, I thought about the privilege that blinded Norquist to understanding the need for criminal justice reform. While Norquist used more personal examples talking about criminal justice than Ifill, his stories fell flat, seemed out of touch, and overly focused on him, a man who has never been involved with the criminal justice system. Ifill balanced facts and figures with compassion towards the suffering that the criminal justice system has enacted on black and brown people in the United States. This debate exemplified why our values in changing the criminal justice system impact what reform looks likes and who gets left behind in reform. As I continue my year of service, this reminded me to closely examine my core values and the values of  potential partners in this work.


photo from